Skill Transfer - Quote of the Day

February 11, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

People who made a ton of money in the business world sometimes run for public office. Their entry level aims are usually somewhere near the top – governor, senator, even president. And they often tout their business success as evidence that they’ll be excellent public servants or that they “know how to create jobs.”

It reminds me of high school – the student government elections and Assembly Day when the jock’s speech always centered on the idea that his experience on the football team qualified him to be president of the student body.

I was thinking about this again when I read Sudhir Vankatesh’s piece in Wired about prostitution. He notes that the Internet has not been kind to the pimp role. Hookers have become much more independent.
I met 11 pimps working out of midtown Manhattan in 1999, and all were out of work within four years. One enlisted in the military; two have been homeless. Only one now has a full-time job, working as a janitor in a charter school.*
I imagined a pimp speechifying about his administrative role, his vast experience dealing with people, bringing buyers and sellers together – making a market really. All these qualified him for a leadership position in business or government. It’s the same kind of bullshit peddled by the quarterback in high school or the former CEO running for governor. The difference is that the pimps know it and take a more realistic view of their job history.
I asked one of them how pimping experience helps him in the legit economy: “You learn one thing,” he said. “For a good blow job, a man will do just about anything. What can I do with that knowledge? I have no idea.”

* Charter-school advocates often argue that these schools, freed from the union stranglehold over hiring and firing, can be much more effective in their personnel selection. I guess they have a point.


Bob S. said...

Since this is a sociology blog, shouldn't there be some data along with the issue?

I mean surely there are studies out there proving the issue one way or another?

Jay Livingston said...

If I knew of sources data, I would have at least linked to them. There might be data out there, at least about the question of whether the skills people have (or acquire)that make them successful business people also make them better in elective office. Of course, defining terms like "better" would be a problem, and it would be hard to get a large enough sample. Sampling might be a problem too in the other question -- whether the occupational skills of pimps successfully transfer to other occupations. I'll check out the grant possibilities.

Bob S. said...


The issue I have is you seem down on the concept without offering any evidence.

Now I don't know your experiences or skill set but I wonder if this isn't just an academics view of the world.

Arguing that pimps are an analogy for executive skills is a little far fetched.

Having been a Boy Scout as a youth and an adult Scouter -- I have seen that leadership skills do transfer.

The success of that transfer depends on how much leadership the Scout is allowed to exercise.

Frankly this post reeks of revenge against some high school slight you suffered.

Jay Livingston said...

Bob, You’re right. I am skeptical about the idea that ability and success in one area (business, sports) makes for greater effectiveness in government. Maybe there’s systematic evidence out there, but I don’t know of it. (To be sure, there is anecdotal evidence on both sides, but when I wrote the post, I was not at all thinking of our recent “CEO president,” who made a bundle in the business of sports and yet was not necessarily a good president.)

But no, whatever slights I may have suffered in high school had nothing to do with student elections or athletes. What motivated the post was the contrast between the realism of the lowly pimp and the blather of the dudes running for office.

Bob S. said...


Come on, do you really think there is a comparison in the skill sets of a pimp and anyone running for office?

Normally you are very realistic in your writing and I appreciate that but this is ridiculous.

A successful business leader has to learn many skills that are useful in government: consensus building, employee development, budgeting, understanding of the law and its impact.

Just exactly what skill set does a pimp have to have?
How to beat up and intimidate women, recognizing undercover cops,eh?

Jay Livingston said...

Bob. I guess I didn’t make myself clear. I wasn’t saying that former pimps and former CEOs are equally qualified to be Senators. I was not comparing the skills of the CEO running for public office and those of the pimp (interesting though that might be). I was comparing their degrees of modesty and realism in claiming that their previous work qualified them for the job they were seeking. A former pimp applying for a job in HR, for example, might claim that he had acquired valuable job-relevant skills for that position. (“I’ve had extensive experience managing the careers of individual practitioners. This required skills of fostering co-ordination among them. I also did a lot of conflict resolution, both among the personnel and with our customer base.”)

But the pimp Vankatesh quotes knows that this sort of claim is bullshit. Former CEO’s seeking the governership or a US Senate seat as an entry-level job in government are less reserved in their assertions about the transfer of skills from one sector to another.

Bob S. said...

Okay...again.. show me the evidence.

Show me that CEOs are making outlandish claims.

That is the basis of your argument isn't it?

Jay Livingston said...

Bob. As I said above, I don't know of any systematic evidence one way or another. I can think of lots of reasons it would be hard to get -- the small number of cases, the lack of consensus on rating the performance of politicians, finding an appropriate comparison group, etc.

In the absence of such evidence, we have a choice: we can believe whatever a person running for office says about himself or herself, or we can be skeptical about such claims. I guess my inclination when evidence is lacking is to be skeptical about self-promoting claims, whether they come from a CEO or a pimp.

Bob S. said...


How about taking the middle ground and seeing if those people who have done it have been successful?

If someone running for office claims his/her sports background makes them effective -- find out

Were they re-elected? Did they do what they said they were going to do? What is their popularity?

Sorry but this really seems like academic sour grapes talking here.

You have no evidence.
You have no reason to disbelief -- but you do.

You have no case studies or examples cited -- but you are casting a wide net regardless.

Let's turn it around because I hear this claim even more often.

"Because of my academic career or achievements I would be a great politician".

Do you believe that more or less than if the person is a sports figure?

brandsinger said...

This is the dopiest argument I ever had the misfortune to look in on. Is someone here actually arguing that you need to be a government employee to be qualified for a government job? Does that mean that a soldier (Jackson, Eisenhauer), actor (Reagan), professor (Wilson), or planter (Washington) had no legitimate claim to run for president? Hack politicians only need apply? ... and then is the other side actually saying that the case makes no sense because there is no "data"? You need "data" to spot a dopy argument? Jeez... I recommend long sabbaticals all around to re-connect with life on earth.

Jay Livingston said...

As the subject line of the post indicates, it is not about whether an actor or soldier or linebacker or auto mechanic or whatever can serve admirably as an elected official. It's about whether the abilities that make someone effective in one specific area (the one I specified was business) will make him or her a better public official. People running for office often make that claim. Is the claim valid, or is it dopey (the word I used was bullshit)? Both Bob (I think) and I would prefer if there were systematic data on this question.